The prosecution, the defense and the judge  all agree now that evidence hidden by the Cameron County District Attorney from Melissa Lucio’s trial counsel should cause the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reverse her conviction!

Rally for Melissa by the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement held in Houston, April 23, 2022. WW Photo: Gloria Rubac

Lucio was sent to death row in 2008 for causing the death of her two-year-old daughter Mariah Alvarez. Exactly two years ago, in April, 2022, she was waiting to be executed in Texas when she got a stay of execution with two days left to live.

The young child had accidentally fallen down a concrete staircase leading to their second-floor apartment and died from head trauma. The DA accused Lucio of beating little Mariah and murdering her.

The hidden evidence included that one of her children saw Mariah fall down the stairs, and that her children told Child Protective Services and police that their mother was not physically abusive to Mariah or the other children. The evidence also included a CPS report which stated that Lucio’s children told an investigator that their mother was worried about Mariah after the fall and was caring for her before the child died.

In an extremely rare move, Lucio’s appellate attorney, Vanessa Potkin, of the Innocence Project, and Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz released a joint statement in early April to MyRGV.com regarding the agreed order. The judge finally agreed to it and it has been sent to Texas’ highest criminal court.

Kept from their mother for 17 years

On April 15, Lucio’s children issued the following statement: “We are grateful to our mother’s legal team for their hard work to bring the truth to light and to DA Saenz for taking another look at our mother’s case and recognizing that she did not receive a fair trial and her conviction should be overturned. We hope and pray the Court of Criminal Appeals will agree with the District Attorney, the defense, and the judge and our mother can come home to her family. It’s been 17 years that we have been without her. We love and miss her and can’t wait to hug her.”

Lucio’s case has gathered widespread attention and support. In February 2022, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) issued precautionary measures asking the state to refrain from execution until her case was reviewed and to ensure detention conditions align with international human rights standards.

In March 2022, 81 members of the Texas House of Representatives, led by Republican Representative Jeff Leach, signed a letter calling on Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant her clemency. The stay was granted before the board had a chance to vote.

A friend of the court brief filed by the Innocence Project and The Innocence Network on behalf of Lucio stated: “Police interrogation may sometimes psychologically pressure even innocent people to confess to crimes they did not commit. When the interrogated suspect is a battered woman, as she was in this case, such risks are heightened, and the need for expert testimony to explain these risks to lay juries are more acute.”

At trial, the defense tried to present expert testimony to educate the jury about why Lucio, as a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, would be more likely to admit to something she did not do.  But the trial court refused to allow the testimony. Instead, it allowed a Texas Ranger to say that he knew she was guilty from the time he first laid eyes on her, because of her slumped posture and downcast eyes.

Judge Stephen A. Higginson, of the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals wrote in a dissenting opinion in Lucio v. Lumpkin on Feb. 9, 2021:  “A battered woman was convicted of capital murder because, in a case lacking direct evidence, prosecutors told the jury that, five hours into interrogation, in the middle of the night after the discovery of her dead child, [Lucio] accepted a seasoned interrogator’s suggestion that she was responsible, ultimately agreeing with him that she ‘did it.’”

In Texas there are now seven women on death row, and several have cases of innocence that are waiting for a judicial review that would reverse those convictions. Women are rarely sentenced to death and even more rarely are executed.

The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide reports there are 52 women, including five trans women on death rows across the U,S. Eighteen death-sentenced women have been executed in this country since 1976. Six of those were in Texas and all but two were in Southern states.

Gloria Rubac

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Gloria Rubac

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